For much of the nation’s first 100 years, Americans gave meaning to their values and expressed their creative energy in a diverse array of civic activity. As we saw in the previous post, Americans overcame constraints to their freedom through their own inspiration and sense of community.
Today, action has been replaced by inaction. A once spirited culture of engagement has been replaced by an increasingly self-centered attitude and the loss of initiative, cooperation, trust, and moral responsibility.
While it is easy the see how technology – the automobile, television, and internet – can limit as well as enhance human interaction, historian Niall Ferguson argues that it is “not technology, but the state – with its seductive promise of ‘security from the cradle to the grave’ – [which is] the real enemy of civil society.”
Ferguson cites the prophetic vision of Tocqueville, who we met in the previous blog post, when he imagined a future America in which the spirit of community has been co-opted by government:
“I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men,” Tocqueville wrote in 1840, “who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls.
“Each of them, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others: his children and his particular friends form the whole human species for him; as for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he does not see them; he touches them and does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone….
“Above these an immense tutelary power is elevated, which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing, and mild.
“It would resemble paternal power if, like that, it had for its object to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood….
“Thus, …the sovereign extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.”
Elsewhere Tocqueville added an explicit warning:
“But what political power would ever be in a state to suffice for the innumerable multitude of small undertakings that American citizens execute every day with the aid of association?…
“The morality and intelligence of a democratic people would risk no fewer dangers than its business and industry if government came to take the place of associations everywhere.
“Sentiments and ideas renew themselves, the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed only by the reciprocal action of men upon one another.”
I do believe that government has had a part in the deadening of the American spirit. But, I do not think we can attribute the present condition solely to government.
In my view, the degeneration of behavior and attitudes cannot be divorced from the paralyzing effect of corporate domination and the corrupting influence of mass culture and advertising.
I also believe the long slide toward alienation and apathy has come with our personal acquiescence. For several generations Americans have gradually descended into a materialistic passivity and embraced an obsessive passion for entertainment and spectacle.
This is something we can only fault ourselves for accepting.
Our government began, after all, as a creature of our own invention. And it is now served by people who have been subjected to the same degraded values and demoralized sense of responsibility as the rest of us.
Real change will depend on each of us – taking initiative as individual citizens, accepting responsibility for the well-being of our communities, and by renewing the foundations of society with civility, cooperation, and constructive action.
Coming posts: Living our values into the future– What do we care about; what do we wish to do better or differently? Look for the next post on or about March 24.